State Rep. Chelsey Branham, D-OKC, hosted a virtual youth provider summit on Sept. 10 which focused on Oklahoma's homeless and displaced youth population.
The event provided a space for lawmakers to give perspectives on what is being done to serve the displaced and homeless youth throughout the state, and it has raised consciousness and evoked dialogue surrounding the topic here in Cherokee County.
"This summit was important to provide needed resources and support for these young people as they pave their road ahead. As we have learned during this pandemic, our other problems don't go away because we are focused on COVID. They are exacerbated," said Jamie Caves, Sisu Youth Services executive director.
With Tahlequah Public Schools, Nikki Molloy works as director of the department of family community and engagement. She recognizes that youth displacement is a struggle that many in Cherokee County experience. Her job is to identify students who are homeless or living in inadequate accommodations. Each year, every student in the district fills out a housing form that helps officials to identify these students. Once the form is filled out, Molloy contacts the families to identify their needs, and she connects them with the necessary resources in the community.
The school system has a backpack program, and free and reduced-price lunches. Many of Tahlequah's students are currently working remotely, which can make it difficult for those depending on school meals to eat. This year, every student is allowed to come to the school to pick up a hot lunch. But not all of the kids who are displaced have the means to pick up the lunches, so a team of workers stops by once a week to deliver five breakfasts, lunches, and some snack packs to hold them off for the weekend.
Interested donors can give to Tigers Roar, which is an account for students in need and supplies the resources for the TPS backpack program. Funds for Tigers Roar also supply clothing, shoes, socks, and underwear to displaced students.
To date, Molloy has 208 displaced students that she looks after throughout all of the Tahlequah schools. These students may be homeless or in inadequate housing. This year has been hard for displaced youth because of the impact of COVID-19.
"Families are losing homes and bunking with other families," said Molloy.
Individuals who want to donate to Tigers Roar can contact Molloy at firstname.lastname@example.org.
Tahlequah students are often supported by outside organizations, such as the Cornerstone Church and a community Facebook group that provided face masks for students.
Elizabeth Plasencia is a Sequoyah Elementary School teacher and a board member of the Tahlequah Area Coalition for the Homeless and Zoë Institute. She also works at the Tahlequah Day Center on Saturdays and has been volunteering for years.
The Day Center directs people in need to different organizations that are available. In the past, they've worked with the Methodist church who have provided haircuts, but because of the virus, they had to cease that service. The program provides food and allows individuals to go to the Hands of Grace Warehouse in Park Hill to pick up clothing.
"We have clothing that is donated. We try to make it look like a store. People can go four times in a six-month period. We give them food, which is enough to feed someone for a week," said Plasencia. "It has been busy these days with stimulus money now gone. People are trying to do what they can."
The Zoë Institute also has a program for pregnant youths. Many pregnant youths that they see are homeless, or do not have adequate housing. The institute gives them clothing and makes sure they have shelter. Because they are affiliated with the Abundant Life Church, they encourage the pregnant young women to keep their babies, but they do not require it for them to receive help. After the babies are born, they provide the mother with baby clothing, formula, and diapers.
Tahlequah Day Center is already preparing for their winter drive. Staff and volunteers are going to make stockings filled with travel-sized hygiene kits, socks, and goodies. People can donate these items at the Day Center or the Jack C. Montgomery VA Medical Center in Muskogee
Youth experiencing homelessness are encouraged to reach out to the Oklahoma State Department of Education at 405-521-2846. Parents of displaced youth are encouraged to read their rights at the National Center for Homeless Education, email@example.com.